Andrea Willis, M.D. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee chief medical officer

By Ashley Benkarski

Don’t skip getting the flu vaccine this year.

With America still suffering and struggling through the coronavirus pandemic, the seasonal flu is looming on the horizon.

Dr. Andrea Willis, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee’s chief medical officer and a former pediatrician, said getting the flu vaccine is vital this year due to COVID-19. 

While deaths due to the novel coronavirus have more than surpassed those of the seasonal flu, it should be noted that the latter is capable of causing serious harm of its own. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu hospitalizes more than 200,000 Americans per year on average.

Adults age 65 and over, pregnant women, young children, and those with a history of asthma, heart disease, stroke and diabetes are at higher risk of serious health complications caused by the flu, such as respiratory failure. Studies have shown a flu shot can reduce the likelihood of catching the flu by 40 to 60 percent.

Influenza killed about 1,600 Tennesseans in the 2017-18 flu season and those numbers, along with possible serious lifelong health complications, could increase when compounded with the dangers of the novel coronavirus. While a dual diagnosis is possible, Willis said, it’s still unknown what effects the viruses would have in tandem. “There is going to be a combination of two viruses in the environment, and we don’t know everything about COVID at this point,” she remarked.

It’s important to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible, as it typically takes about two weeks to become fully effective.

“It’s just a good precautionary measure that we should take every year, but when you look at the number of people within Tennessee that have some kind of high risk concern for COVID, for example, we already have a higher proportion of people with those conditions in the state and especially within minority communities,” Willis said. “So they’re already predisposed there, but again, those same people that may be at risk for that kind of respiratory illness are at risk of the flu as well.”

COVID-19 has brought handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing to the fore of health conversations which may lead to a suppression of spread of the flu at the start of the season.

“Ironically, people following safety precautions for COVID-19 is another reason to worry about flu season. Some may be afraid to visit the doctor or worry there’s no room for them in the health care system,” she pointed out in an op-ed. But Willis insisted that getting the flu vaccine is a much safer decision than skipping it this year, adding that the colder weather will bring people together indoors and thereby risk transmission of one or both viruses.

“I think that we really must be cautious because of the close proximity [indoors],” noted Willis. “Keeping up the hygiene precautions is great, and that maybe will offset some of what we see this fall, but just the nature of being indoors around people is still a big risk factor.” In a closed environment, ventilation does make a difference, Willis said.

While a vaccine for COVID-19 is not yet available, the flu vaccine–while not always exact due to the variety of strains–is widely available, from doctor’s offices to stores such as Walgreen’s. If you have health insurance, your flu shot is likely covered at no or very little cost. If you don’t have insurance, most local health departments in Tennessee offer flu shots free of charge, though it’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure the vaccine is available. 

For those who have questions or concerns about the flu vaccine, contact your primary care provider, Willis said.